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Almost Symmetrical

Season 51, Game 07
San Antonio 94, Boston 108
4-3

I miss Kawhi Leonard. And I know I am not the only one.

The Spurs fell to 4-3 Monday night after a 108-94 loss to the Boston Celtics. While it certainly wasn’t the worst loss in Spurs history, clearly this team is without its superstar and it’s never been more obvious.

The Spurs actually played fairly well and managed to keep it close for most of the game, save that ghastly 3rd quarter. The offense is humming along and the Spurs had several good looks. Pop has said numerous times that the players can’t worry about making the shots. That part will come. What they can and should worry about is taking the right shot and making the right play.

For the most part, the guys seemed to do this. Unfortunately, we continue to see plenty of “deer in headlights” plays. Too often, the Spurs are passing up a good shot for a worse shot. It’s fine to go from good to great. It’s another thing to omit the good completely. There’s been quite a bit of extra passing that isn’t exactly beneficial to this team.

The Spurs shot a rough 41 percent from the field, 46 percent from 3 and a mere 50 percent from the charity stripe. Those aren’t good enough numbers to beat the Magic, let alone the Celtics. Brad Stevens has done splendidly in getting the Clover back to reality after losing Gordon Hayward on opening night. Also, it doesn’t hurt that he has Kyrie Irving.

There was about a four minute stretch where you could almost see it on the faces of the players: we miss Kawhi. They needed a bucket a few times and looked like a team playing on a SEGABABA in the middle of March. They looked gassed. Mentally, it takes a toll on you. You miss a few shots, over the course of a few games and then the defense starts to slip. Guys shots turn up short and then they miss a rotation. It’s almost symmetrical.

For years, the Spurs have been kind of a running joke around the league. Everyone talks about how old they are and we all laugh and chuckle about it. But the reality is, this team is young and against the Celtics, without Manu, that youth showed.

It showed when Kyle, Danny, Bryn, Brandon and Sweet Honey Dejounte all refused to shoot, desperately looking for LaMarcus at the end of shot clocks. There is an unnecessary deference taking place inside the offense right now and it’s driving me nuts. These guys are on the court because they can play basketball – well, the jury is still out on Kyle – but without them having the guts to let it fly, the whole team suffers.

Kawhi will help immensely and his return is looming. Parker will also help control the flow of the game and settle things down in the chaos. But until that happens, we will experience some growing pains along the way. For now, we need to take the bad with the good and expect there to be a few headaches.

A few more takeaways from this game…

LaMarcus Aldridge is still really good at basketball.

He received way too much criticism last year, partly for not being Tim Duncan, and partly for not being Portland LaMarcus playing in a spread offense with a penetrating and ball dominant point guard. It was all unfair. He’s been great for the first six games of this season. But he was rubbish last night. In 26 minutes, he shot 39 percent, had a +/- of -19 and shot 1 of 5 from the line. He finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal, a block, a turnover and a foul. Sounds like Aron Baynes.

LaMarcus showed some real maturity this offseason by letting the trade rumors fly and then eating some humble pie and having a heart to heart with Pop. This is good and necessary, but tonight was his first game since the opener where I didn’t like his effort. Well, not at least until he started getting the ball at the elbow versus the low block. He’s much more effective there.

Dejounte Murray is not Kyrie Irving.

This was a little underlying drama to the game. Remember when I was telling you guys all summer on my Twitter that Kyrie Irving was not being traded to the Spurs and you guys wouldn’t listen? I do. Good times. But that trade was only even on the table for the Cavs because of Murray. He was the young piece that had the Cavs interest. And Dejounte shares the same agent with one of the Cavs players. I forget which one.

This game was essentially a showcase of who made the right choice. And clearly, Kyrie was ready for this. He ate Dejounte’s lunch and popped the bag. Murray had five turnovers and two of them were pretty much Kyrie just taking the ball away from him.

Look, Murray is going to be a good player in this league. Maybe an All Star one day. But that day is a long way away. He’s still a 21-year-old, second year player, subbing for a Hall of Famer. It remains to be seen how the rotation will shape up when Parker returns, but for now, Sweet Honey Dejounte will match up against the cream of the crop for point guards every night. We should all accept that it might not always be that pretty.

Rudy Gay is kind of our best player.

I’ve been on the “Rudy Gay for Sixth Man of the Year” bandwagon for a while now. He was the only player to play more than 20 minutes AND score double figures and not finish with a negative +/-. And he’s a scorer. Personally, Sean Elliott can do better than “Natural Born Scorer” as a nickname for him, but it at least remains true. He’s been the only help for LaMarcus in these first seven games and it’s hard to find a real weakness in his game.

Nothing looks rushed. He has incredible size (I didn’t realize how long and bulky he was), an above average handle and is the only player on this roster not named after a Hawaiian Island who can create his own shot, which coincidentally is also a good shot. I love Rudy. I’d buy his jersey.

I don’t know what Brandon Paul is yet.

I have this joke I never got to make when we signed Brandon Paul. I wanted to make a meme of Pop yelling at RC Buford saying, “No! I said CHRIS Paul.” Guys, it would have been hilarious. Point is, I knew nothing about BP3. But uh, hello? He’s nice, y’all.

Defensively, he’s been pretty solid filling in for Kawhi and spelling Green at times. But he has easily been our best shooter as well, shooting a blistering 64 percent from behind the arc.

The next closest person? Former NBA Finals Three Point Leader Danny Green at 44 percent. Paul can Ball and I’d fully expect him to get a lot of Jonathon Simmons’ old minutes, just like Pop said he has earned.

The Spurs get a day off and then get six games at home. They start off with the Warriors, then get the Hornets, Suns, Clippers, Bucks and Chicago. I’d like to see them get four of those six, but it won’t happen unless someone starts shooting the ball.

Hopefully that someone wears number 2.

Photo credit: Michael Dwyer/ AP

Round The Horn

Go Spurs Going Forward

The 2016-17 season was the first in decades that the Spurs had to play without Tim Duncan. The Silver and Black attack exceeded all expectations by putting together perhaps the best rebuilding season by any team in history.

The 2017-18 season will be one of continued rebuilding, laying a foundation for now and the future, one as solid as we spoiled fans of San Antonio can hope for.

The post season had our franchise attached to big names and rumors of this generation’s best point guard wanting to join our squad. Chris Paul was serious about wanting to come to San Antonio, despite the realities of his contract needs and the inability of the Spurs to bring him with the team’s cap restrictions.

What’s important is that he, Derrick Rose, Dwayne Wade, and many others have now been actively and publicly linked to playing in San Antonio. Longtime fans know that San Antonio was not a destination for elite free agent NBA stars in the past. That’s changed. The significance of this cannot be overlooked.

We have many, many, many reasons to be optimistic about this year and beyond. And I believe this may be the deepest roster San Antonio has ever fielded.

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Twist

2017 Western Conference Finals
San Antonio 111, Golden State 113
Warriors lead series 1-0

Not like this.

I didn’t think the Spurs had much of a chance of winning this series, but I at least wanted an honest go of it. I wanted the best the Spurs had to offer being pushed to their limits. I wanted to see how the team responded, and what fight they had in them to push the seemingly invincible Warriors.

We’ll still see that fight, surely; but I don’t know how much resistance they can offer without their best player and lynchpin of the whole operation on both sides of the ball.

What a start to Game 1. After 24 minutes, every Spurs fan was dreaming the impossible “what if?” A 20-point lead against a lethargic Warriors team and a real opportunity to steal one in Oakland. If there was a path to winning this series, the first half of Game 1 laid it bare: steal Game 1, catching the Warriors a bit rusty and overconfident; take 2 of 3 games in San Antonio (likely 1 of Game 3 or 4, and Game 6). Just get to that Game 7 and see what was possible.

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Elation and Deflation

2017 Western Conference Semifinals
San Antonio 121, Houston 96
Series tied 1-1

Let’s start with what we can control: let’s start with the game.

After the blowout in Game 1, we were all eager to see how the Spurs would respond. Would there be huge line-up adjustments? Strategic tweaks?

The big adjustment was starting Gasol in place of Lee, a move that doesn’t scream “genius stroke”. But it worked. There are a couple of things at play here. First, you could argue that the primary letdown in Game 1 was the defense. But against these Rockets, sometimes a better offense is what allows for better defense, by preventing transition and slowing the game down a bit. Want better D? Play better O. Gasol certainly helps that. While Lee is a great offensive player, he is not a floor spreader, while Gasol is (at least this season). So putting Gasol on the floor opens up the offense.

Second, if you’re going to go big, go big. Many people wondered if the Spurs would have to counter Houston by going small. But going small favors Houston greatly. The Spurs got here by being a big team; it’d seem foolish to abandon that one game in. Yes, there will be small-ball counters, but you have to keep your identity.

The problem with starting Lee is that he is not a big big. He plays inside, and he is crafty around the rim. But Gasol is big, tall, long, and everything else associated with being a “big”. While his reputation as a defender is poor, what that really means is that he doesn’t move well in space or defend on the perimeter well. But you know what he can do? Be big and tall and long around the rim. Much like late-career Duncan, he offers rim protection just by being tall and putting his arms straight up.

The Spurs seemed content to keep the bigs back and allow the Rockets to shoot the midrange shot they so loathe. With Gasol and Aldridge, the Spurs had the two biggest bigs out there, and were able to hold their own against the smaller Houston team.

Another way they took advantage of that size? Offensive rebounds. There are obvious advantages to being small and quick, particularly in today’s NBA, but it isn’t without sacrifice. Often, that sacrifice is rebounding. Defensive rebounds are important, but they don’t really stymie the opposing team’s offense. Offensive rebounds, on the other hand, slow down the opposing team’s offense and depress their defense. The Spurs grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, and were hounds on the glass, particularly late when they made their dominating push.

On offense, the ball also moved a lot better. This isn’t the 2014 Spurs, but this is the most they’ve looked like that team these playoffs. With 27 assists, the team found the right balance of movement and space with Kawhi dominating in isolation.

Speaking of Kawhi: he was a monster. He guarded Harden on one end, forcing him into one of his worst playoff games (all without committing a single foul). He scored 34 points on 16 shots. He had 7 rebounds and 8 assists. He had 3 steals and 1 block. He only committed 2 turnovers. He basically had the perfect game.

The defense looked better overall. More movement, more understanding, more connection. They held the Rockets to 34 threes (after giving up 50 in Game 1), often a better indicator than number made. They bothered Harden at nearly every turn, and didn’t overreact to some hot shooting from role players. Again, in that dominant 4th quarter run, they held the Rockets to 5 points over about a 9 minute span. That will win most playoff games.

Sadly, now we must get to the real headline of the game: Tony Parker’s injury. By now we know it’s a torn tendon in the quadricep that will require surgery and will likely sideline him for months.

Parker is a favorite punching bag of Spurs fans, but nobody wants to see this. Our hearts and sympathy go out to him. He might be the Spur we’re most critical of, but he is still a Spur, and he is still family. More than any other player on the team, we’ve grown up with Tony, watching him mature from a spry 19 year old into the crafty veteran he is today. Without getting into the long-term implications of this injury, we all wish a speedy recovery for him and we’ll be pulling for him the whole way.

We must dive into the immediate impact of this injury. Despite his up and down season, Parker was clearly the second best player in these playoffs. The Spurs basically went as he went. Outside of Game 4 against Memphis, when he played well, the Spurs won; he played poorly, the Spurs lost. Kawhi is the leader and dominant driving force; Parker is the bellwether.

We not only have to replace his production, we must replace his leadership. This is a team of veterans, but Tony was the guiding hand at the wheel in a way nobody else on this team has been, including Manu. Hopefully with the intelligence and heart on this team, there won’t be a vacuum created here.

His production is another story. Often when a player in injured, it’s not the back-up you worry about, it’s the back-up to the back-up. So whether he starts or doesn’t, Mills can fill a lot of Parker’s role. But then who fills Patty’s role?

Let’s start with the starters. In the regular season, we all know that Murray would get the start and Mills would stay on the bench. Will Pop still do that in the playoffs? It seems out of character for Pop to trust those Western Conference Semifinal starting minutes to a rookie. But we’ll see.

If not, Patty will get the start, and then Pop will be forced to rejigger his rotation to include more minutes for Simmons, Manu, and possibly Anderson. (Basically, bigger wing players who can handle the ball a bit.)

Either way, I expect Kawhi to get more time as the primary ball handler. But at what point are we asking too much of him. Guard Harden, score most of the points, and be the main ball handler and facilitator? That’s a lot.

Some outside the box options: Start Manu at PG. Late in the game, Pop went to strategy that I like to call medium ball. Go small, but with all wings (and one big). So you’re basically playing small (countering the Rockets small ball), but you’re still ‘bigger’ at every position. During the critical stretch, the lineup was Kawhi, Green, Simmons, Manu, and Pau or Aldridge. 4 wings and 1 big (bigger than any of their bigs). So at the PG matchup, Beverley was giving up size, and the Spurs were even or bigger at every other position. And yet, it’s still a team that can play fast and spaced.

Beverley is not a traditional PG (since Harden is the PG), so you don’t have to worry about guarding him in the traditional way. Manu could guard him. Or Green. Either way, there are favorable cross matches everywhere.

Another outside the box option: start Anderson. He basically played PG in college, and with Kawhi on the floor, you’d have two functional ball handlers.

The biggest question, outside of rotations, is playing time. Will Pop trust Murray? Or will Mills be the only PG that actually plays, and the rest will be hybrid big-small lineups?

Who is going to get more minutes? Manu should, but there is a limit to his effectiveness (though if ever there was a time for a vintage Manu stretch, this is it.) The way Simmons played in this game–his energy and athleticism were critical in that 4th quarter–I expect to see a lot more of him. This is the perfect match-up for his skills.

With Parker going down, the Rockets are likely favored the rest of the way. But I liked what I saw in Game 2, and I feel much better about our chances, with or without Parker. If we can steal one in Houston, this series gets very interesting.

Game 3 is Friday night.

Go Spurs Go.

2017 Western Conference Semifinals Preview: The Familiar Strangers

Given the animosity between the fan bases (or is that just me?) and the continued success of both franchises over the years, it’s pretty miraculous the Rockets and the Spurs haven’t met in the playoffs since 1995. This is the only Western Conference team Duncan never faced (or beat) in the Playoffs. That’s crazy.

My first thought: we owe it to Duncan to get this spiritual victory for him.

My second thought: man, I want to beat this team. Badly. Nothing makes me happier than beating the Rockets. Throw D’Antoni into the mix, and that’s a powerful desire to win.

My third thought: this could be a very good series.

In the regular season, the Spurs took the series 3-1, but finished those four games with a mere +8 point margin. Every game was close and came down to the final possessions. We of course remember the Kawhi 3 and block that sealed one victory; we might also remember that crazy comeback from 14 down with about 6 minutes left earlier in the season.

My memory of each of the games was that the Rockets always seemed to have a lead late and seemed to be in control, but the Spurs were able to execute and perform better in the clutch. Under the postseason spotlight, this could become more magnified and could hopefully benefit the Spurs in tight games.

The first worry when playing the Rockets is always James Harden. How the Spurs choose to defend him will set the tone for the series. Can you guard him one-on-one with a combination of Green and Leonard? When he runs the pick and roll, can you defend that 2-on-2, so that the other three defenders stay home on the perimeter shooters, thus minimizing the 3-point damage this team wants to inflict? Can we avoid fouling him? Can we make him work on defense?

Beyond that, the next concern is the 3-point shot. It’s no secret Houston wants to jack them up early and often. It can be the great equalizer, allowing a less talented team to hang in a game when the shot is on. Will Houston have enough hot shooting games to take the series? When they are not shooting well (they shot poorly in their first round match-up against OKC), do they have enough to stay with the Spurs? Can the Spurs maintain their defensive integrity while still limiting and contesting the long ball?

After the tough first-round series with Memphis, it may seem like the Spurs offense is a bit stalled out. But moving from Memphis to Houston must feel like being released from basketball prison. Houston will score a lot; but they will let San Antonio score a lot, too. However, an offensive battle favors Houston; a defensive one favors the Spurs. Where on the continuum will these games (and the series) fall. The average score for the regular season series was 105-103. If the scores stay around there and lower, I think the Spurs should be heavily favored. If they drift into the 110-115 range, the Spurs might be in trouble.

Turning to the Spurs, there are still plenty of questions 6 games into the postseason. Will Kawhi continue his historic playoff run? By extension, can he out-MVP James Harden in a showdown of the potential MVP runner-ups? Whichever MVP candidate can contribute more to winning will likely lead his team to the series victory.

But Kawhi still needs help. Parker was great in the first round. Can we get 3-4 more great games from him? Will Beverley cause him defensive problems? He’s a great defensive guard, but so is Conley, so it might not be that much different for him.

After that, who else is ready to step up? Manu? Mills? Green? Anybody want to start hitting shots consistently? With Houston usually trending small, will San Antonio stay big and really force a style-vs-style fight? Or will they match and play some with Kawhi at the 4?

Which bigs will play? We know Aldridge will (and he needs to have a great series), but after that, who will get the call? Will Lee continue to start? How many minutes will Gasol play, and can he be effective? Both Dedmon and Bertans seem like good match-ups against Houston, but how much will Pop trust them?

Finally, which team is playing better right now. Presumably, Houston played a better first-round opponent and beat them more handily. They didn’t necessarily look good doing it, though, and required OKC to self-combust a bit to cover up their own myriad of mistakes in the end games.

San Antonio, on the other hand, was in a tougher series, but had to beat Memphis to win the games: the Grizzlies definitely weren’t giving anything away. While OKC was the better regular season team, I think Memphis was a better playoff team, and the Spurs had to play better, more playoff-style basketball in the first round. This might make them more prepared for this second-round match-up, when the intensity will crank up even more.

Of course, the question of health is always important. Both teams have had a nice rest before this series, so I expect both teams fully healthy. However, Harden did seem a bit banged up (ankle, hand) near the end of that first round series, so that will be something to monitor.

With any luck, this will be a great and competitive series…that the Spurs win.

Game 1 is Monday night in San Antonio.

Go Spurs Go.

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